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The (Hidden) Costs of Climate Change

By Philip Duffy

Here in Copenhagen an oft-heard question about a proposed climate change agreement is “can we afford it?”

This is an important question, but too often those who ask it look at only one side of the issue: the cost of stopping climate change.  That is, they try to figure out how much it will cost to produce massive amounts of energy from low-carbon sources. Whatever that cost is, I am sure it’s more than you want to pay, what with Christmas coming and all.

But what if the question were framed, “can we afford not to act to combat climate change?” This question may seem silly: isn’t the cost of doing nothing nothing? Well, no. For one thing, not acting against climate change means continuing to get energy mainly from fossil fuels. This is already not cheap, and will get more expensive as supplies become more scarce. Furthermore, experience has shown that fossil fuels can get painfully expensive very quickly.

The main expense of not acting against climate change will be increasingly costly damage from the effects of climate change. Some of these costs will be obvious: if rising sea level inundates valuable property, that’s hard to miss. (Or if a wall is built to prevent inundation, the cost of that is clear.) Similarly, if climate change does indeed make severe hurricanes more common, those costs will be obvious (and not small).

But many of the costs of climate change are hidden. For example, we know that climate change worsens air quality (this is worst on hot days, and climate change means more hot days.) Poor air quality has huge human health impacts, including asthma and other respiratory ailments, and we know how expensive health-care is. These ailments caused by climate change result in lost productivity through absenteeism and reduced performance, and also lead to increased medical costs and lost dollars for employers and employees.  Ultimately, poor air quality increases death rates, imposing an ultimate cost that is enhanced by climate warming.

In many regions, including the Western U.S., climate change is exacerbating water scarcity. This results in increased cost, not just for water, but also for things water is used for, particularly agriculture. And the strong link between climate change and wildfire means that a fraction of our fire-suppression costs is really a hidden cost of climate change.

The list goes on and on.

The point is, many of the costs of climate change are hidden in the bills we pay every day. This makes them difficult to recognize, but no less real. It also makes them very difficult to estimate and add up.

The question “can we afford a climate change agreement” is complex. It depends on who “we” is, and on the time window considered, and so on. But however the question is asked, it is important to consider the hidden costs.


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